Kim Carter spoke with US charitable bequests expert Dr Russell James about new evidence that is emerging as to why it’s important not just to get into the will, but to get in early.

Kim Carter spoke with US charitable bequests expert Dr Russell James about new evidence that is emerging as to why it’s important not just to get into the will, but to get in early.


New evidbequestsence is emerging as to why it’s important not just to get into the will, but to get in early.

Dr Russell James, a professor at Texas Tech University and an expert in charitable bequests, says the insights come from a long-term US survey called the Health and Retirement Study, which tracks about 30,000 participants aged 50 plus every two years. It reveals their most up-to-date estate plans, current charitable giving patterns and whether they ended up leaving a gift in their will to charity when they died.

The study shows changes in giving for a discrete cohort of people over many years and what happens to current giving after charity is added into the estate plan.

Dr James examined the responses of participants who originally didn’t have a charitable component in their estate plan and later added charity into their plan. That way he was able to compare their giving before and after they added charity to their will.

Charitable giving goes up

So what happens? Once people put charity in their will, their giving goes up significantly. During the eight years before those people had added charity into their wills, their annual giving averaged $4,210. Two years after the will had changed to include charity, their average annual giving had doubled to $8,500. Even four years after putting charity into the plan, annual giving was still higher than before, averaging about $7,500.

“When the donor puts a charity in the will, the donor is then treating the charity like family. That commitment naturally draws the donor closer to the cause and makes it more likely they will support the charity in other ways,” explained Dr James.

Getting in the will early tends to increase current giving and may help increase the size of the estate gift. In reviewing information from the more than 12,000 people who’ve died since the Health and Retirement Survey began in 1992, Dr James noted most charitable plans were added within five years of death. On average, one-longer term plan was worth three plans made in the last two years of life. In all, getting the charitable component into the will earlier was associated with more dollars for the charity – as long as the charitable plan stayed in the will. More about that later.

Strategies for getting in the will sooner: establish social norms

So how do you get into the will earlier? Dr James said one strategy that has been successful with people who are at that point in decision making is establishing a social norm around gifts in wills when you go to have the conversation.

“We suggest saying something like: ‘Many people like to leave a gift in their will or many people like to leave a gift to support an organisation that’s been important in their lives.’ By saying this is a normal thing to do and lots of people like them have chosen to do this, social norms can be quite influential,” he explained.

Dr James noted that in a recent UK study, solicitors asking clients about leaving a gift to charity got twice the number of commitments. But when the line ‘Many of our customers like to leave a gift to charity. Are there any causes you’re passionate about?’ was added to the study, the response was triple that of those who were not asked.

Death is not a conversation starter

Looking for a receptive audience at a seminar focused on estate planning? Don’t start the conversation with death. “If you lead with death, you’re going to have a relatively small audience that will stay with you to hear the message,” advised Dr James.

What’s better, he suggested, is to start the topic with other relevant topics of interest and, along the way, include the information that relates to estate planning and gifts in wills. “I found this out from personal experience when I tried to give a seminar on estate planning to supporters of the non-profit organisation to which I was consulting at the time. I joke that the two people who attended said the seminar was good. What I did later was change the title of my seminar from estate planning to ‘Christians and the law.’ I led in with topics like civil liberties and senior citizen concerns, and then introduced estate planning and legal issues related to this towards the end of my talk. The attendance was much greater and people were more responsive to the message.”

A little guerrilla marketing doesn’t hurt

You might tell a story about a donor and the exciting things going on at your organisation, but then you slip in a sentence or two about a person connected to the organisation who’s leaving a gift in their will to the charity. Dr James calls this “the hit-and-run approach, not necessarily a standalone piece, but something that you can sprinkle about in a variety of ways and formats.”

Tell three stories, then… shut up!

When talking to a potential bequestor, Dr James suggests you tell three stories about your organisation and then pause to observe the reaction to your information.

“Inevitably in a conversation, the person will ask what’s new at your organisation. If I were talking to an alumnus of Texas Tech, I might start with something like: ‘We have a new building on campus with new residence halls and nice-looking facilities. The second point might be: I hope the football season will be better this year with the coach putting new strategies in place.  For the final point I’d say: And Mary Smith just did a great thing. You might remember her, she was in your year, wasn’t she?’ Then I’d talk about how Mary has left a gift in her will to be used for a scholarship for our financial planning students. After that, I’d take a sip of my drink, shut up and see what the response is. 

This approach allows the person, if desired, to open a conversation about a gift in a will.  If the person isn’t ready for the conversation, he or she might say, ‘So…that new building on campus: where do I park?’ You might think you failed, but you haven’t.  Sharing a story about a similar person who has planned a gift in a will is the most powerful strategy we have ever tested for shifting people’s attitudes towards making their own gift.  So, this is a win either way,” he said.

We, the living

And, if you are telling a story about a bequestor, Dr James advises making it the story of someone who’s still alive. “Telling the story of a living donor is powerful and people will react to it, especially if they think they have a lot in common with this person. Also, as we want to avoid leading the conversation into death, the story of living donors who have made a gift in their wills is always preferable.”

Don’t go radio silent on older bequestors

If you’ve had success with your social norms, seminars and living bequestor stories, and your donor has chosen to put you in the will, it is crucial that fundraisers don’t just “count it and then forget it.” While giving went up if a charity was added to an estate plan, the same study also reported a significant amount of end-of-life instability in the charitable component of the estate plan.

“The real issue is many charities typically communicate with donors based upon recency of donation. But when we looked at those who actually transferred dollars to charity at death within the last two to three years prior to their end of life, the tendency to donate goes down dramatically. In fact, only about half are still donors and very few are still volunteers. The problem is these last two or three years is also a period of a high level of instability in the charitable component in the estate plan because we can track people’s estate plans across time and see that this is happening,” he said.

“So, if you combine those two factors, what you get is that the typical approach is for charities to go radio silent right at the most critical point of communication when those plans are at their most unstable.”

Dr James suggests when working with older friends of a charitable organisation who’ve been there for the long haul, it’s crucial not to let these people “fall off the map.”

“That doesn’t mean you go and ask them for another $20 because that can be perceived poorly. It’s just about staying in contact with them, letting them know how much you appreciate them and their lifetime connection to the organisation, and keeping them informed of the charity’s happenings and perhaps who has recently planned or given a gift.

“That’s a critical change in philosophy that charitable organisations need to consider when they are working with their oldest friends. It doesn’t mean they need to keep everyone on their list when they stop giving. But it does mean you need to keep in touch with those in their 80s, 90s and beyond even if they are no longer recent donors.” 

Dr Russell James, JD, PhD, CFP, is a professor in the Department of Personal Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, where he directs the on-campus and online graduate program in charitable financial planning and also teaches charitable gift planning at the Texas Tech University School of Law. Dr James has over 150 publications in academic journals, conference proceedings and books, and is regularly quoted on charitable and financial issues in the trade and mainstream media.  

During the week 11-17 September, Dr James will be the keynote speaker at Include a Charity Week sector seminars where he will discuss: Inside the mind of the bequest donor – a review of neuroimaging and experimental psychology research impacting gifts in wills marketing. He’ll be speaking in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. To find out more and to book your place, visit






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